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MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

By Jonathan Shieber

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 

Mars Curiosity Rover finds evidence of an ancient oasis on Mars

By Jonathan Shieber

On its latest trek through the Gale Crater on Mars, the Curiosity Rover has discovered evidence that’s leading . scientists to believe that there was an oasis at the base of that 150-kilometer-wide crater.

Curiosity scientists described the scene in an article in “Nature Geoscience” published earlier this week. Researchers analyzing data from the Rover are extrapolating from the data that rocks enriched by mineral salts are evidence of briny ponds that went through periods of drying out and overflowing.  Those deposits serve as a watermark made by climate fluctuations as Mars’ climate changed from a wet one to the current frigid ice desert it is today.

The next step in their research is for scientists to understand how long the transition took and when it happened, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The Gale Crater is the leftover geological formation from an impact that changed the surface of Mars. Eventually water and wind filled in the crater and the hardening sediment, carved by wind, created the Mount Sharp geological formation that the Curiosity Rover is scaling right now.

The Rover is taking samples of each layer as it climbs and sending that data back to reveal new information about the environment on Mars over time, NASA said.

“We went to Gale Crater because it preserves this unique record of a changing Mars,” said lead author William Rapin of Caltech, in a statement. “Understanding when and how the planet’s climate started evolving is a piece of another puzzle: When and how long was Mars capable of supporting microbial life at the surface?”

Rapin and his co-authors found salts across a 500-foot-tall section of sedimentary rocks that Curiosity first visited in 2017. The “Sutton Island” salts suggest that water had collected in pools across the formation in addition to the intermittent very dry periods that the scientists had already discovered.

Scientists speculate that the geological formations may have resembled the salt lakes in South America’s Altiplano. Streams and . rivers flowing . from mountain ranges lead to similar basins as the Martian terrain. And those lakes are similarly influenced by climactic changes.

“Finding inclined layers represents a major change, where the landscape isn’t completely underwater anymore,” said Team member Chris Fedo, who specializes in the study of sedimentary layers at the University of Tennessee. “We may have left the era of deep lakes behind.”

Future missions will see Curiosity driving toward more inclined layers to investigate rock structures. If they formed in drier conditions, that may mean a new phase of development for the crater — and reveal still more secrets about life on Mars from millions of years ago.

Via is launching an on-demand public transit network in the city of Cupertino

By Kirsten Korosec

Shuttle startup Via and the city of Cupertino are launching an on-demand public transportation network, the latest example of municipalities trying out alternatives to traditional buses.

The aim is for these on-demand shuttles, which will start with six vans branded with the city of Cupertino logo, to provide more efficient connections to CalTrain and increase access to public transit across the city.

The on-demand shuttle service, which begins October 29, will eventually grow to 10 vehicles and include a wheelchair accessible vehicle. Avis Budget Group, another partner in this service, is the fleet management service that will maintain the vehicles.

In Cupertino, residents and commuters can use the Via app or a phone reservation system to hail a shuttle. The network will span the entire 11-square-mile city with a satellite zone surrounding the Sunnyvale CalTrain station for commuters, Via said Monday. Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf views the Via on-demand service as the next generation of “what public transportation can be, allowing us to increase mobility while taking a step toward our larger goal of reducing traffic congestion.”

The service, which will run from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, will cost $5 a ride. Users can buy weekly and monthly passes for $17 and $60, respectively.

Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

Via also partners with cities and transportation authorities, giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles. The city of Cupertino, home to Apple, SeaGate Technologies and numerous other software and tech-related companies, is one example of this. Austin’s Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority also uses the Via platform to power the city’s Pickup service. And Via’s platform is  used by Arriva  Bus UK, a Deutsche Bahn Company, for a first- and last-mile service connecting commuters to a high-speed train station in Kent, U.K.

In January, Via announced it was partnering with Los Angeles as part of a pilot program that will give people rides to three busy public transit stations. Via claims it now has more than 80 launched and pending deployments in over 20 countries, providing more than 60 million rides to date.

While city leaders appear increasingly open to experimenting with on-demand shuttles, success in this niche business isn’t guaranteed. For instance, Chariot, which was acquired by Ford, shut down its operations in San Francisco, New York and the UK in early 2019.

Waymo is creating 3D maps of Los Angeles to better understand traffic congestion

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company under Alphabet, has started creating 3D maps in some heavily trafficked sections of Los Angeles to better understand congestion there and determine if its self-driving vehicles would be a good fit in the city.

For now, Waymo is bringing just three of its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to Los Angeles to map downtown and a section of Wilshire Boulevard known as Miracle Mile.

Waymo employees will initially drive the vehicles to create 3D maps of the city. These maps are unlike Google Maps or Waze. Instead, they include topographical features such as lane merges, shared turn lanes and curb heights, as well as road types and the distance and dimensions of the road itself, according to Waymo. That data is combined with traffic control information like signs, the lengths of crosswalks and the locations of traffic lights.

Starting this week, Angelenos might catch a glimpse of Waymo’s cars on the streets of LA! Our cars will be in town exploring how Waymo's tech might fit into LA’s dynamic transportation environment and complement the City’s innovative approach to transportation. pic.twitter.com/REHfxrxqdL

— Waymo (@Waymo) October 7, 2019

Waymo does have a permit to test autonomous vehicles in California and could theoretically deploy its fleet in Los Angeles. But for now, the company is in mapping and assessment mode. Waymo’s foray into Los Angeles is designed to give the company insight into driving conditions there and how its AV technology might someday be used.

The company said it doesn’t plan to launch a rider program like its Waymo One currently operating in the suburbs of Phoenix. Waymo One allows individuals to hail a ride in one of the self-driving cars, which have a human safety driver behind the wheel.

The self-driving car company began testing its autonomous vehicles in and around Mountain View, Calif., before branching out to other cities — and climates — including Novi, Mich., Kirkland, Wash., San Francisco and, more recently, in Florida. But the bulk of the company’s activities have been in the suburbs of Phoenix  and around Mountain View — two places with lots of sun, and even blowing dust, in the case of Phoenix.

NASA’s first all-electric experimental X-plane is ready for testing

By Darrell Etherington

NASA will fly in the near future a crewed X-plane, one of the experimental aircraft it created to test various technologies, for the first time in two decades. This X-plane, the X-57 Maxwell to be exact, is significant for another reason, too: It’s the first fully electric experimental plane that NASA will fly.

The delivery of the X-57 Maxwell to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California means they can begin ground testing, which will be followed by flight testing once they confirm through the ground testing phase that it’s flight-ready. This all-electric X-57 is just one of a number of modified vehicles that will not only help NASA researchers test electric propulsion systems for aircraft, but will also help them set up standards, design practices and certification plans alongside industry for forthcoming electric aerial transportation options, including the growing industry springing up around electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft for short-distance transportation.

NASA plans to share the results of its testing and flights of the all-electric X-57, as well as its other modified versions, with industry and other agencies and regulatory bodies. The X-plane project also provides another way for NASA to work toward a number of technical challenges that will have big benefits in terms of everyday commercial aerial transportation, like boosting vehicle efficiency and lowering noise to develop planes that are far less disturbing to people on the ground.

Osano makes business risk and compliance (somewhat) sexy again

By Zack Whittaker

A new startup is clearing the way for other companies to better monitor and manage their risk and compliance with privacy laws.

Osano, an Austin, Texas-based startup, bills itself as a privacy platform startup, which uses a software-as-a-service solution to give businesses real-time visibility into their current privacy and compliance posture. On one hand, that helps startups and enterprises large and small insight into whether or not they’re complying with global or state privacy laws, and manage risk factors associated with their business such as when partner or vendor privacy policies change.

The company launched its privacy platform at Disrupt SF on the Startup Battlefield stage.

Risk and compliance is typically a fusty, boring and frankly unsexy topic. But with ever-changing legal landscapes and constantly moving requirements, it’s hard to keep up. Although Europe’s GDPR has been around for a year, it’s still causing headaches. And stateside, the California Consumer Privacy Act is about to kick in and it is terrifying large companies for fear they can’t comply with it.

Osano mixes tech with its legal chops to help companies, particularly smaller startups without their own legal support, to provide a one-stop shop for businesses to get insight, advice and guidance.

“We believe that any time a company does a better job with transparency and data protection, we think that’s a really good thing for the internet,” the company’s founder Arlo Gilbert told TechCrunch.

Gilbert, along with his co-founder and chief technology officer Scott Hertel, have built their company’s software-as-a-service solution with several components in mind, including maintaining its scorecard of 6,000 vendors and their privacy practices to objectively grade how a company fares, as well as monitoring vendor privacy policies to spot changes as soon as they are made.

One of its standout features is allowing its corporate customers to comply with dozens of privacy laws across the world with a single line of code.

You’ve seen them before: The “consent” popups that ask (or demand) you to allow cookies or you can’t come in. Osano’s consent management lets companies install a dynamic consent management in just five minutes, which delivers the right consent message to the right people in the best language. Using the blockchain, the company says it can record and provide searchable and cryptographically verifiable proof-of-consent in the event of a person’s data access request.

“There are 40 countries with cookie and data privacy laws that require consent,” said Gilbert. “Each of them has nuances about what they consider to be consent: what you have to tell them; what you have to offer them; when you have to do it.”

Osano also has an office in Dublin, Ireland, allowing its corporate customers to say it has a physical representative in the European Union — a requirement for companies that have to comply with GDPR.

And, for corporate customers with questions, they can dial-an-expert from Osano’s outsourced and freelance team of attorneys and privacy experts to help break down complex questions into bitesize answers.

Or as Gilbert calls it, “Uber, but for lawyers.”

The concept seems novel but it’s not restricted to GDPR or California’s upcoming law. The company says it monitors international, federal and state legislatures for new laws and changes to existing privacy legislation to alert customers of upcoming changes and requirements that might affect their business.

In other words, plug in a new law or two and Osano’s customers are as good as covered.

Osano is still in its pre-seed stage. But while the company is focusing on its product, it’s not thinking too much about money.

“We’re planning to kind of go the binary outcome — go big or go home,” said Gilbert, with his eye on the small- to medium-sized enterprise. “It’s greenfield right now. There’s really nobody doing what we’re doing.”

The plan is to take on enough funding to own the market, and then focus on turning a profit. So much so, Gilbert said, that the company is registered as a B Corporation, a more socially conscious and less profit-driven approach of corporate structure, allowing it to generate profits while maintaining its social vision.

The company’s idea is strong; its corporate structure seems mindful. But is it enough of an enticement for fellow startups and small businesses? It’s either dominate the market or bust, and only time will tell.

Tesla acquires computer vision startup DeepScale in push toward robotaxis

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has acquired DeepScale, a Silicon Valley startup that uses low-wattage processors to power more accurate computer vision, in a bid to improve its Autopilot driver assistance system and deliver on CEO Elon Musk’s vision to turn its electric vehicles into robotaxis.

CNBC was the first to report the acquisition. TechCrunch independently confirmed the deal with two unnamed sources, although neither one would provide more information on the financial terms of the deal. 

Tesla vehicles are not considered fully autonomous, or Level 4, a designation by SAE that means the car can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention.

Instead, Tesla vehicles are “Level 2,” and its Autopilot feature is a more advanced driver assistance system than most other vehicles on the road today. Musk has promised that the advanced driver assistance capabilities on Tesla vehicles will continue to improve until eventually reaching that full automation high-water mark.

Earlier this year, Musk said Tesla would launch an autonomous ridesharing network by 2020. DeepScale, a four-year-old startup based in Mountain View, Calif., appears to be part of that plan. The acquisition also brings much needed talent to Tesla’s Autopilot team, which has suffered from a number of departures in the past year, The Information reported in July.

DeepScale has developed a way to use efficient deep neural networks on small, low-cost, automotive-grade sensors and processors to improve the accuracy of perception systems. These perception systems, which use sensors, mapping, planning and control systems to interpret and classify data in real time, are essential to the operation of autonomous vehicles. In short, these systems allow vehicles to understand the world around them.

The company argued that its method of using low-wattage and low-cost sensors and processors allowed it to deliver driver assistance and autonomous driving to vehicles at all price points.

The company had raised more than $18 million — in $3 million seed and $156 million Series A rounds — from investors that included Autotech VC, Bessemer, Greylock and Trucks VC.

On Monday, DeepScale’s co-founder Forrest Iandola posted an announcement on Twitter and updated his LinkedIn account. The Twitter message read “I joined the @Tesla #Autopilot team this week. I am looking forward to working with some of the brightest minds in #deeplearning and #autonomousdriving.”

I joined the @Tesla #Autopilot team this week. I am looking forward to working with some of the brightest minds in #deeplearning and #autonomousdriving.

— Forrest Iandola (@fiandola) October 1, 2019

In Tesla’s push toward “full self-driving,” it developed a new custom chip designed to those capabilities. This chip is now in all new Model 3, X and S vehicles. Musk has said that Tesla vehicles being produced now have the hardware necessary — computer and otherwise — for full self-driving. “All you need to do is improve the software,” Musk said in April at the company’s Autonomy Day.

Others in the industry have balked at those claims. Tesla and Musk have maintained the “improve software” line, and have continued to roll out improvements to the capability of Autopilot. Earlier this month, Tesla released a software update that adds new features to its cars. The update included Smart Summon, an autonomous parking feature that allows owners to use their app to summon their vehicles from a parking space.

McDonald’s starts selling its Beyond Meat-based “P.L.T.” sandwich in Canada

By Jonathan Shieber

McDonald’s first foray into the plant-based protein patty market in North America is launching today in Canada.

The company’s “P.L.T.” (plant, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich, which uses patties from Beyond Meat, is now on sale at several locations in Canada.

This isn’t the first new vegetarian sandwich to launch at a “Golden Arches” location this year. Back in April, the company launched a new vegan sandwich for customers in its franchise locations across Germany.

McDonald’s has had vegetarian and vegan sandwich options on its international menu sporadically for years. Two years ago, it partnered with a specialty Norwegian food company called Orkla to launch its McVegan burger in Finland and Sweden.

With the launch in North American locations, McDonald’s is taking another step down the path toward potentially adding a vegetarian sandwich option to its menu in the U.S.

As the largest fast food restaurant in the world, any steps McDonald’s takes to move to adopt a plant-based protein product from Beyond Meat would represent a significant boost for the company.

It’s happening at a time when some of the world’s largest companies are beginning to launch their own meat-replacement products. Nestle, which partnered with McDonald’s on the launch of their vegan burger in Germany, is using products developed from the team responsible for Sweet Earth Foods.

Nestle bought the Moss Landing, Calif.-based business back in 2017 to get into the plant-based market, just as the company was beginning its work on a plant-based patty.

Other large food companies like Tyson have launched protein-based meat replacements, while industry players in the prepared food space including, McCain Foods have invested in Nuggs.

The fact that McDonald’s decided to go with Beyond for its North American debut points to the fact that the market for suppliers to the biggest restaurant chains is still contested.

Indeed, the major fast food burger chains appear to be taking a largely regional strategy with vendors as supply chain issues for meatless patties seemingly remain a concern.

For instance, while Burger King uses Impossible Foods patties for its Impossible Whopper, sources have said that the company may look for a regional supplier for plant-based products in Latin America.

And it’s important to note that these pilot tests don’t mean that fast food chains will stick to keeping plant based products on the menu. Even as Beyond Meat scores its huge win with its McDonald’s pilot across 28 locations in Canada, the company’s burgers were pulled from locations in another big regional Canadian fast food chain — Tim Hortons .

Beyond Meat benefits from a wider array of plant-based offerings than its closest competitor, Impossible Foods, which has stayed focused on a replacement for ground beef. The El Segundo, Calif.-based company has inked pilot deals with KFC for a plant-based chicken nugget, and a number of fast food outlets like Dunkin, are selling the company’s breakfast sausages.

But the competition extends beyond fast food chains. Big food service vendors like Sodexo and others that cater to corporations, colleges, and universities are trying to lock in suppliers of protein replacements as well.

Meanwhile, demand for alternative proteins continues to skyrocket, with most financial analysts predicting that the market for these types of products could take a significant bite out of the traditional meat industry over the next decade.

Analysts at Barclays predict the market for alternative proteins could hit $140 billion by 2029.

“During this test, we’re excited to hear what customers love about the P.L.T. to help our global markets better understand what’s best for their customers,” said Ann Wahlgren, McDonald’s VP of Global Menu Strategy, in a statement last week. “This test allows us to learn more about real-world implications of serving the P.L.T., including customer demand and impact on restaurant operations.” .

Tesla, Elon Musk violated labor laws, judge rules

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla broke national labor laws when it unfairly prevented workers from unionizing, an administrative law judge in California ruled Friday.

The ruling, which will likely be appealed, was first reported by Bloomberg. Tesla has not responded to a request for comment. TechCrunch will update the article if Tesla responds.

The automaker and CEO Elon Musk were ordered by Judge Amita Baman Tracy to take several actions to remedy the violations, including reinstating and giving backpay to a fired pro-union employee. The judge also ordered Musk to hold a public meeting and read aloud the findings to employees at the factory informing them the NLRB concluded the company had broken the law.

From the ruling:

I recommend that Respondent be ordered to convene its employees and have Elon Musk (or, if he is no longer the chief executive officer, a high-ranking management official), in the presence security guards, managers and supervisors, a Board agent and an agent 15 of the Union, if the Region and/or the Union so desire, read the notice aloud to employees, or, at Respondent’s option, permit a Board agent, in the presence Musk, to read the notice to the employees at the Fremont facility only.

The NLRB, while able to determine Tesla violated the law, has a limited reach, Bloomberg noted. The NLRB, for instance, can’t hold executive personally liable, nor can it assess punitive damages.

The ruling, which was published Friday, found that Musk and Tesla had violated the National Labor Relations Act by repressing attempts to organize a union at the company’s Fremont. Calif., factory. The judge determined that Tesla violated labor laws when it created rules that prevented off-duty employees from distributing union organizing leaflets in the Fremont parking lot, fired two workers unfairly and interrogated employees about their union activities. The judge also determined that Musk’s own tweets violated the law when he implied that workers who unionized would have to give up company-paid stock options.

Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018

 

Readying an IPO, Postmates secures $225M led by private equity firm GPI Capital

By Kate Clark

Postmates, the popular food delivery service, has raised another $225 million at a valuation of $2.4 billion, the company confirmed to TechCrunch on Thursday, ahead of an imminent initial public offering.

Private equity firm GPI Capital has led the investment, first reported by Forbes, which brings Postmates’ total funding to nearly $1 billion. GPI takes non-controlling stakes — between 2% and 20% — in both late-stage private companies and publicly listed ventures.

After tapping JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America to lead its float, Postmates filed privately with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO earlier this year. Sources familiar with the company’s exit plans say the business intends to publicly unveil its IPO prospectus this month.

To discuss the company’s journey to the public markets and the challenges ahead in the increasingly crowded food delivery space, Postmates co-founder and chief executive officer Bastian Lehmann will join us onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt on Friday October 4th.

As Forbes noted, last-minute financings are critical for companies poised to run out of cash and in need of an infusion prior to hitting the public markets. The motives for Postmates’ last-minute financing are unclear; however, the company will certainly begin trading on the stock market at an interesting time. 2019 has proven to be the year of unicorn listings, and former Silicon Valley darlings like Uber and Lyft have struggled to stabilize since their multi-billion-dollar debuts, despite years of support and coddling from venture capitalists.

Meanwhile, activity in the food delivery space has distracted from Postmates’ prospects. DoorDash, for one, recently purchased another food delivery service, Caviar, from Square in a deal worth $410 million. Uber is said to have considered buying Caviar, which had been looking for a buyer at least since 2016, according to Bloomberg. Postmates, for its part, has long been the subject of M&A rumors.

On-demand food delivery, undeniably popular, has yet to prove its long-term viability as a money-making business. At the very least, a sizeable check from a private equity firm ensures Postmates has the capital it needs, for the time being, to accelerate growth and double down on its autonomous robotic delivery ambitions.

Founded in 2011, Postmates is also backed by Spark Capital, Founders Fund, Uncork Capital, Slow Ventures, Tiger Global, Blackrock and others.

The man behind Tesla’s Powerwall is now pitching an all-in-one power management system for homes

By Jonathan Shieber

Arch Rao, the former head of product at Tesla who was behind the company’s Powerwall home energy storage is system, is back with a new company pitching energy management and efficiency for homes.

SpanIO is looking to upgrade the electrical fusebox for homes with a digital system that integrates into the existing circuit breaker technology that has been the basis for home energy management for at least a century. 

Rao and his team are looking to make integrating renewable power, energy storage, and electric vehicles easier for homeowners by redesigning the electrical panel for modern energy needs.

“We packaged the metering controls and compute between the bus bar and the breaker,” says Rao. “Energy flows through the panel through a breaker bar and the breaker bar has tabs that you slot your breakers into… that tab is usually a conductor. We have designed a digital sub-assembly that packages current metering, voltage measurement and ability to turn each circuit on or off.”

The technology is meant to be sold through channels like solar energy installers or battery installers. The company already has plans to integrate its power management devices with energy storage systems like the ones available from LG .

Initially, Span expects to be selling its products in states like California and Hawaii where demand for solar installations is strong and homeowners have significant benefits available to them for installing renewable energy and energy efficiency systems.

For homeowners, the new power management system means that they have control over which parts of the home would be powered in the event of an outage. The company’s technology connects the entire home to a renewable system. Using existing technologies, installers have to set up a separate breaker and rewire certain areas of the home to receive the power generated by a renewable energy system, Rao says.

That control is handled through a consumer app available to download on mobile devices.

SpanIO is backed by a slew of early investors including Wireframe Ventures, Wells Fargo Strategic Capital, Ulu Ventures, Hardware Club, Energy Foundry, Congruent Ventures and 1/0 Capital, and intends to raise fresh cash for before the end of the year. Rao said the round would be “in the low double digits” of millions.

Voyage raises $31 million to bring driverless taxis to communities

By Kirsten Korosec

Voyage, the autonomous vehicle startup that spun out of Udacity, announced Thursday it has raised $31 million in a round led by Franklin Templeton.

Khosla Ventures, Jaguar Land Rover’s InMotion Ventures and Chevron Technology Ventures also participated in the round. The company, which operates a ride-hailing service in retirement communities using self-driving cars supported by human safety drivers, has raised a total of $52 million since launching in 2017. The new funding includes a $3 million convertible note.

Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron has big plans for the fresh injection of capital, including hiring and expanding its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which always have a human safety driver behind the wheel.

Ultimately, the expanded G2 fleet and staff are just the means toward Cameron’s grander mission to turn Voyage into a truly driverless and profitable ride-hailing company.

“It’s not just about solving self-driving technology,” Cameron told TechCrunch in a recent interview, explaining that a cost-effective vehicle designed to be driverless is the essential piece required to make this a profitable business.

The company is in the midst of a hiring campaign that Cameron hopes will take its 55-person staff to more than 150 over the next year. Voyage has had some success attracting high-profile people to fill executive-level positions, including CTO Drew Gray, who previously worked at Uber ATG, Otto, Cruise and Tesla, as well as former NIO and Tesla employee Davide Bacchet as director of autonomy.

Funds will also be used to increase its fleet of second-generation self-driving cars (called G2) that are currently being used in a 4,000-resident retirement community in San Jose, Calif., as well as The Villages, a 40-square-mile, 125,000-resident retirement city in Florida. Voyage’s G2 fleet has 12 vehicles. Cameron didn’t provide details on how many vehicles it will add to its G2 fleet, only describing it as a “nice jump that will allow us to serve consumers.”

Voyage used the G2 vehicles to create a template of sorts for its eventual driverless vehicle. This driverless product — a term Cameron has used in a previous post on Medium — will initially be limited to 25 miles per hour, which is the driving speed within the two retirement communities in which Voyage currently tests and operates. The vehicle might operate at a low speed, but they are capable of handling complex traffic interactions, he wrote.

“It won’t be the most cost-effective vehicle ever made because the industry still is in its infancy, but it will be a huge, huge, huge improvement over our G2 vehicle in terms of being be able to scale out a commercial service and make money on each ride,” Cameron said. 

Voyage initially used modified Ford Fusion vehicles to test its autonomous vehicle technology, then introduced in July 2018 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, its second generation of autonomous vehicles. But the end goal has always been a driverless product.

Voyage engineers Alan Mond and Trung Dung Vu

TechCrunch previously reported that the company has partnered with an automaker to provide this next-generation vehicle that has been designed specifically for autonomous driving. Cameron wouldn’t name the automaker. The vehicle will be electric and it won’t be a retrofit like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vehicles Voyage currently uses or its first-generation vehicle, a Ford Fusion.

Most importantly, and a detail Cameron did share with TechCrunch, is that the vehicle it uses for its driverless service will have redundancies and safety-critical applications built into it.

Voyage also has deals in place with Enterprise rental cars and Intact insurance company to help it scale.

“You can imagine leasing is much more optimal than purchasing and owning vehicles on your balance sheet,” Cameron said. “We have those deals in place that will allow us to not only get the vehicle costs down, but other aspects of the vehicle into the right place as well.”

Shape Security hits $1B valuation with $51M Series F

By Zack Whittaker

Anti-fraud startup Shape Security has tipped over the $1 billion valuation mark following its latest Series F round of $51 million.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced the fundraise Thursday, bringing the total amount of outside investment to $173 million since the company debuted in 2011.

C5 Capital led the round along with several other new and returning investors, including Kleiner Perkins, HPE Growth, and Norwest Ventures Partners.

Shape Security protects companies against automated and imitation attacks, which often employ bots to break into networks using stolen or reused credentials. Shape uses artificial intelligence to discern bots from ordinary users by comparing known information such as a user’s location, and collected data like mouse movements to shut down attempted automated logins in real-time.

The company said it now protects against two billion fraudulent logins daily.

C5 managing partner André Pienaar said he believes Shape will become the “definitive” anti-fraud platform for the world’s largest companies.

“While we while we expect a strong financial return, we also believe that we can bring Shape’s platform into many of the leading companies in Europe who look to us for strategic ideas that benefit the entire value-chain where B2C applications are used,” Pienaar told TechCrunch.

Shape’s chief executive Derek Smith said the $51 million injection will go towards the company’s international expansion and product development — particularly the capabilities of its AI system.

He added that Shape was preparing for an IPO.

Patch Homes locks in $5M Series A to give homeowners financial freedom without debt

By Arman Tabatabai

Homeownership has long been touted as the American dream. But rising rates of mortgage debt, student loan debt, or otherwise are making the pursuit of homeownership a nightmare. Debt burdened individuals or those with inconsistent or tight cash flow can not only struggle to get credit loan approval when buying a home but also struggle to satisfy monthly mortgage payments even after purchase. 

Patch Homes is hoping to keep the proverbial American dream alive. Patch looks to provide homeowners with cash flow and liquidity by allowing them to monetize their homes without taking on debt, interest or burdensome monthly payments. 

Today, Patch took another big step in making its vision a far-reaching reality. The company has announced it’s raised a $5 million Series A round led by Union Square Ventures (USV)  with participation by from Tribe Capital and previous investors Techstars Ventures, Breega Capital, and Greg Schroy.

Patch Home looks to partner with homeowners by investing up to $250,000 (with an average investment of ~$100,000) for an equity stake in the home’s value, generally in the 5% to 20% range. Homeowners aren’t subject to any interest or recurring payments and have ten years to pay back Patch’s investment. Upon doing so, the only incremental money Patch receives is its portion of the change in the home’s value over the course of the ten year period. If the value of the home goes down in value, Patch willingly takes a loss on its investment.

According to Patch Homes CEO and cofounder Sahil Gupta, one of the major motivations behind the company’s model is to align Patch’s incentives with the homeowners, allowing both parties to think of each other as trusted partners even after financing. After Patch’s investment, the company provides a number of ancillary services to homeowners such as credit score monitoring, as well as home value and property tax tracking.

In one instance recounted by Gupta in an interview with TechCrunch, Patch even covered three months of an owner’s mortgage during a liquidity crunch for his small business, allowing him to maintain his home and credit score. Patch is incentivized to provide all services that can help ensure an increase in home value, benefitting both Patch and the homeowner, with the homeowner earning the majority of the asset’s appreciated value.  

Additionally, since Patch’s model isn’t focused on a homeowner’s ability to pay back a loan, interest or periodic payments, Patch is able to provide financing to more people. Patch is able to help those with more variable qualifications that struggle to get traditional loans — such as a 1099 contracted worker — monetize their illiquid assets with less harsh or restrictive terms and without increasing their debt burden. Gupta described this as solving the core problem of providing liquidity to asset-rich but cash-flow sensitive people. 

Patch is not only looking to provide easier liquidity to more homeowners, but they’re trying to do so faster than traditional lenders. Interested customers can first receive a free estimate of whether Patch will invest in their home or not, how much its willing to invest and what percentage equity it will take — primarily based on Patch’s machine learning models that focus on asset, market, and location level attributes. 

After the initial estimate, a Patch home advisor will educate the customer on the product and start a formal application process, which includes your standard income and credit score verification and otherwise, that takes 5-10 days. All-in, homeowners have the ability to get money in as little as 14 days, a significantly shorter timeline than your standard home credit process. Once the investment is made, owners have full freedom with how they use the money.

According to Patch, while its customers come from a diverse set of backgrounds, many either accumulated debt have to pay down the net or may struggle making monthly payments. The average Patch homeowner uses 40% of the investment to eliminate debt, adds 40% to their savings account or passive income, and invests 20% into home improvements.

To date, Patch has raised a total of $6 million and believes the latest round of funding will help scale its operations as they team up with advisors like USV that have experience scaling fintech companies (such as a Lending Club or Carta). The funds will be used to invest in product and Patch’s clearing technology in order to further speed up Patch’s lending process.

Patch also hopes to use the investment to help them gradually expand their footprint, with the goal of eventually having a presence all 50 states. (Patch is currently available in 11 regional markets within California and Washington and expects to be in 18 regional markets by the end of the year including those in Utah, Colorado and Oregon.)

Patch Homes Co Founders Sundeep Ambati L and Sahil Gupta R

Image via Patch Homes

What makes homeownership so galvanizing for the Patch team? Patch CEO Sahil Gupta spent years putting his Carnegie Mellon financial engineering degree to work in banking and finance, as well as in financial products and strategy positions at fintech startups backed by heavy hitters such as YC to Goldman Sachs.

After realizing the majority of the US population were homeowners, but were struggling to make monthly payments or save for the future, Sahil wanted to figure out how we could take an illiquid asset like a home and make it easily accessible. 

Around the same time, Sahil’s cofounder Sundeep Ambat was working as a contractor on a new business venture of his and was struggling to get a home equity loan. While these circumstances ultimately led Sahil and Sundeep to found Patch Homes in 2016 out of the TechStars New York accelerator program, the deeper motivation behind Patch can be traced back nearly 30 years when Sahil’s father made an equity sharing agreement with his brother as they were building his family’s home in India.

With a growing family and a pregnant wife, Sunil’s father was adamant about living debt-free and so his brother provided an investment in exchange for an equity stake in the house. According to Sahil, the home is still in the family and has appreciated substantially in value to the benefit of both Sahil’s father and his brother. Longer-term, Patch wants to be the preferred partner for homeownership, helping reduce cash tight owners’ financial anxiety without the debilitating weight of debt. 

“Some companies want to help people buy or sell homes, but homeownership really begins after that point. Patch is built to be inside the home with you and everything that comes thereafter,” Gupta told TechCrunch.

“Patch was created to partner with homeowners to help them unlock their home equity so they can achieve their financial goals along every step of their homeownership journey.

Incredible Health’s hiring platform for nurses gets $15M led by Andreessen Horowitz

By Natasha Lomas

Andreessen Horowitz has led a $15 million Series A in US-based job matching platform for nursing vacancies, Incredible Health. Other investors in the funding round include NFX, Obvious Ventures, Precursor Ventures and Gingerbread Capital. To date the recruitment startup has raised a total of $17M.

The California startup’s pitch to nursing professionals and hospitals is faster and more efficient hiring via proprietary matching algorithms which replace the need for hospitals to manually sift applications. Instead the platform matches job seekers to nursing vacancies based on criteria supplied by both sides of its network.

Why focus on nurses? The startup cites a statistical claim that by 2024 the US will have a shortage of a million nurses — which it argues poses a risk of financial loss to hospitals, as contractors cost more to employ, while also contending that a growing number of unfilled nursing vacancies risks the quality of care hospitals are able to offer patients.

It launched its recruitment platform in late 2017 and has so far limited its range to California, with 150+ hospitals in the region signed up and an undefined “thousands” of nurses on board.

The Series A funding will be going towards accelerating national scaling in the US.

As well as VC backers, Incredible Health’s Series A includes participation from a number of individual investors hailing from the hiring space — including Hired founder, Matt Mickiewicz; Steve Goodman, founder of Bright.com (acquired by LinkedIn); and Pete Kazanjy, founder of Talentbin (acquired by Monster) .

“We look at at least 40-50 different criteria, including location preferences, licenses and skills,” says co-founder and CEO Iman Abuzeid who has a background as a medical doctor. Her co-founder and CTO, Rome Portlock, who comes from a family of nurses, is an MIT alum — where he studied computer science.

“We work with each hospital individually to understand their key needs so we can customize their algorithms, enabling personalized matches that don’t waste the recruiter’s time,” Abuzeid adds. “We also find out the nurse’s preferences through automated methods.

“At the end of the day, a hospital recruiter or hiring executive does not want to see 200 candidates in their app, they want to see 12 that are the right fit. Same with the nurses — they don’t want to hear from 76 employers, they want to hear from three that are the right fit.”

Incredible Health’s claim for its approach is that it yields 3x faster recruitment vs the national average — saying hires via its platform take 30 days or less instead of up to 90 days on average.

It also makes a further claim of 25x “hiring efficiency” for hospitals as a consequence of its matching algorithms taking over much of the hiring admin. This is based on data from hospitals which, prior to using its platform, had to review an average of 500 applicants to fill a single position vs the matching tech cutting that to an average of just 20.

Nurses don’t apply to jobs on Incredible Health’s platform; it’s up to hospitals to apply to nursing professionals the algorithm deems a suitable match for a job vacancy.

Hospitals can’t browse all available nurses; they only see candidates the algorithm selects for them — so, as with nurses, they’re trading wider visibility of the job market for algorithmic matches based on non-disclosed “proprietary” criteria.

Incredible Health sells that reduction of agency as an efficiency saving to both sides of its network.

“Rather than completing an application for every potential employer — a process which takes an average of 45 minutes per application — nurses who use Incredible Health complete one profile — a process that takes less than 5 minutes. That profile is then used to screen and custom-match them to multiple great job opportunities,” says Abuzeid, adding when asked about criteria that nurses have to provide “data like their job preferences, experience and skill set, and also their education and licensing” as part of the onboarding profile-building process. 

For nurses this load-lightening switch from active jobseeker to passive platform lurker — i.e. once they’ve created their profile — is how Incredible Health hopes to woo healthcare workers away from traditional job boards (such as specialist nursing vacancies board Indeed).

Its marketing thus leans heavily on claims that nurses just need to spend a few minutes creating a profile and then watch as the great job offers to roll in.

It also claims nurses who find employment through its two-sided platform score on average a 17% salary increase and a 15% reduction in commute time.

Though all these figures are derived from an unknown number of nurses working across a subset of hospitals in a single US state — so it remains to be seen how claimed perks get squeezed as the platform scales its national range and necessarily opens up to a wider pipeline of nursing professionals.

For now, Incredible Health also says its focus is on building a career marketplace for nursing professionals to connect them with “permanent, well-paid hospital jobs”, rather than dealing with travel and temp nurses

Again, whether it’s able to maintain focus on what one investor calls “high value health care workers” and the claimed high quality permanent jobs as the business scales will also be one to watch.

Commenting on the Series A, Andreessen Horowitz managing partner Jeff Jordan told us: “Incredible Health’s mission is to help health care professionals live better lives and do their best work.  They’ve seen strong early success helping to match these health care professionals with hospitals throughout California, and are beginning to expand their solution nationally.  We look forward to supporting their efforts to building a game-changing health care employment marketplace.”

Part of the funding will go on expanding from a pure hiring platform — to what the startup bills as a “community for health care professionals as they advance their careers” — in a clear bid to nurture and expand its candidate pool so it can be responsive to platform needs.

“High caliber nurses are out there, but employers have a hard time hiring them through traditional methods like job boards and recruiting agencies because those methods rely almost exclusively on human engagement — not technology — to scour through applications, licenses and experience — and manually vet and qualify them for jobs,” Abuzeid tells TechCrunch, dubbing the job-board competition “outdated methods”.

As well as offering a “streamlined” hiring process for nursing roles, as she puts it, she notes the platform automates “entire parts of the screening and vetting process” — meaning “we’re able to deliver high-quality nurses at scale”. 

That said, there’s still manual work involved — with the startup noting on its website that staff may contact nurses to “make sure you’re presenting yourself in the best way possible to top hospitals”, as well as telling hospitals that candidates are pre-screened for “licenses, experience, responsiveness, and more” (though at least some, if not all, of that vetting is automated).

Like any platform startup, Incredible Health is hoping to channel network effects to its advantage — including by feeding data back in to improve matching algorithms.

“Our system gets more effective the more who use it,” Abuzeid tells us. “The first [effect] is a traditional marketplace network effect: More nurses has attracted more hospitals, and more hospitals has attracted more nurses. And then, there’s the data network effect: The more each side uses it, the ‘smarter’ our algorithms get, too.”

Each hospital onboarded onto the platform brings with it a range of needs “advancing our system’s performance abilities”, she adds.

While algorithmic recruitment can clearly speed up the business of matching candidates to relevant jobs — a factor evident in the sheer number of job matching startups now playing in different sectors — it inevitably entails a loss of control for both sides of the employer-applicant divide.

Depending on matching criteria used there could be potential for gender and/or racial bias to creep into automated selections — bias that would be difficult for hospitals to detect since they’re only able to view a subset of candidates deemed a match, rather than the entire available pool at the time.

However Abuzeid dismisses the idea that there’s any risk of bias in Incredible Health’s approach. 

“We operate successfully in a very regulated industry,” she says. “Because potential employees are assessed on their skills, experience and certifications, the technology weeds out biases typically found in processes which are largely human-powered.”

On the business model front, Incredible Health is charging hospitals what it bills as a “simple, flat fee pricing regardless of level, experience or location” — which it touts as “cheaper and more scalable than traditional recruiting agencies”.

“Traditional recruiting agencies are very expensive, because they don’t use technology in their screening and matching processes. It’s all people powered and can cost $20,000-$30,000 per single hire,” Abuzeid claims.

As for rival (lower fee) legacy job boards, she argues they offer “quantity, not quality and require lots of work for nurses and employers to find a good fit” — claiming this old school method results in “really low hiring rates at 0.2%”. 

America’s largest companies push for federal online privacy laws to circumvent state regulatory efforts

By Jonathan Shieber

As California moves ahead with what would be the most restrictive online privacy laws in the nation, the chief executives of some of the nation’s largest companies are taking their case to the nation’s capitol to plead for federal regulation.

Chief executives at Amazon, AT&T, Dell, Ford, IBM, Qualcomm, Walmart and other leading financial services, manufacturing and technology companies have issued an open letter to congressional leadership pleading with them to take action on online privacy, through the pro-industry organization, The Business Roundtable.

“Now is the time for Congress to act and ensure that consumers are not faced with confusion about their rights and protections based on a patchwork of inconsistent state laws. Further, as the regulatory landscape becomes increasingly fragmented and more complex, U.S. innovation and global competitiveness in the digital economy are threatened,” the letter says.

The subtext to this call to action is the California privacy regulations that are set to take effect by the end of this year.

As we noted when the bill was passed last year there are a few key components of the California legislation, including the following requirements:

  • Businesses must disclose what information they collect, what business purpose they do so for and any third parties they share that data with.

  • Businesses would be required to comply with official consumer requests to delete that data.

  • Consumers can opt out of their data being sold, and businesses can’t retaliate by changing the price or level of service.

  • Businesses can, however, offer “financial incentives” for being allowed to collect data.

  • California authorities are empowered to fine companies for violations.

There’s a reason why companies would push for federal regulation to supersede any initiatives from the states. It is more of a challenge for companies to adhere to a patchwork of different regulatory regimes at the state level. But it’s also true that companies, following the lead of automakers in California, could just adhere to the most stringent requirements, which would clarify any confusion.

Indeed, many of these companies are already complying with strict privacy regulations thanks to the passage of the GDPR in Europe.

Tesla Autopilot was engaged before 2018 California crash, NTSB finds

By Kirsten Korosec

A Tesla Model S was in Autopilot mode — the company’s advanced driver assistance system — when it crashed into a fire truck in Southern California last year, according to a preliminary report released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Reuters was the first to report on the contents of the public documents. A final accident brief, including NTSB’s determination of probable cause, is scheduled to be published Wednesday.

The crash, involving a 2014 Tesla Model S, occurred January 22, 2018 in Culver City, Calif. The Tesla had Autopilot engaged for nearly 14 minutes when it struck a fire truck that was parked on Interstate 405. The driver was not injured in the crash and the fire truck was unoccupied.

Tesla has not commented on the report. TechCrunch will update if the company provides a statement.

The report found that the driver’s hands were not on the wheel for the vast majority of that time despite receiving numerous alerts. Autopilot was engaged in the final 13 minutes and 48 seconds of the trip and the system detected driver-applied steering wheel torque for only 51 seconds of that time, the NTSB said. Other findings include:

  • The system presented a visual alert regarding hands-off operation of the Autopilot on four separate occasions.
  • The system presented a first-level auditory warning on one occasion; it occurred following the first visual alert.
  • The longest period during which the system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque was 3 minutes and 41 seconds.

In the 2018 crash into a fire truck, the vehicle was operating a “Hardware Version 1” and a firmware version that had been installed via an over-the-air software update on December 28, 2017. The technology provided a number of convenience and safety features, including forward, lane departure and side collision warnings and automatic emergency braking as well as its adaptive cruise control and so-called Autosteer features, which when used together

Public docket opened Tuesday, for investigation of Jan. 22, 2018, Culver City, California, highway crash involving a Tesla & Culver City Fire Dept. fire truck; https://t.co/UbgF0ll9dA. Final accident brief, including probable cause, slated to publish Sept. 4, 2019.

— NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) September 3, 2019

While the report didn’t find any evidence that the driver was texting or calling in the moments leading up to the crash, a witness told investigators that he was looking down at what appear to be a smartphone. It’s possible that the driver was holding a coffee or bagel at the time of the crash, the report said.

Autopilot has come under scrutiny by the NTSB, notably a 2016 fatal crash in Florida and a more recent one involving a Walter Huang, who died after his Model X crashed into a highway median in California. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also opened an inquiry into the 2016 fatal crash and ultimately found no defects in the Autopilot system. NTSB determined the 2016 fatal crash was caused by a combination of factors that included limitations of the system.

The family of Huang filed in May 2019 a lawsuit against Tesla and the State of California Department of Transportation. The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, alleges that errors by Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system caused the crash.

Watch a Waymo self-driving car test its sensors in a haboob

By Kirsten Korosec

Waymo, the self-driving car company under Alphabet, has been testing in the suburbs of Phoenix for several years now. And while the sunny metropolis might seem like the ideal and easiest location to test autonomous vehicle technology, there are times when the desert becomes a dangerous place for any driver — human or computer.

The two big safety concerns in this desert region are sudden downpours that cause flash floods and haboobs, giant walls of dust between 1,500 and 3,000 feet high that can cover up to 100 square miles. One record-breaking haboob in July 2011 covered the entire Phoenix valley, an area of more than 517 square miles.

Waymo released Friday a blog post that included two videos showing how the sensors on its self-driving vehicles detect and recognize objects while navigating through a haboob in Phoenix and fog in San Francisco. The vehicle in Phoenix was manually driven, while the one in the fog video was in autonomous mode.

The point of the videos, Waymo says, is to show how, and if, the vehicles recognize objects during these extreme low visibility moments. And they do. The haboob video shows how its sensors work to identify a pedestrian crossing a street with little to no visibility.

Waymo uses a combination of lidar, radar and cameras to detect and identify objects. Fog, rain or dust can limit visibility in all or some of these sensors.

Waymo doesn’t silo the sensors affected by a particular weather event. Instead, it continues to take in data from all the sensors, even those that don’t function as well in fog or dust, and uses that collective information to better identify objects.

The potential is for autonomous vehicles to improve on visibility, one of the greatest performance limitations of humans, Debbie Hersman, Waymo’s chief safety officer wrote in the blog post. If Waymo or other AV companies are successful, they could help reduce one of the leading contributors to crashes. The Department of Transportation estimates that weather contributes to 21% of the annual U.S. crashes.

Still, there are times when even an autonomous vehicle doesn’t belong on the road. It’s critical for any company planning to deploy AVs to have a system that can not only identify, but also take the safest action if conditions worsen.

Waymo vehicles are designed to automatically detect sudden extreme weather changes, such as a snowstorm, that could impact the ability of a human or an AV to drive safely, according to Hersman.

The question is what happens next. Humans are supposed to pull over off the road during a haboob and turn off the vehicle, a similar action when one encounters heavy fog.  Waymo’s self-driving vehicles will do the same if weather conditions deteriorate to the point that the company believes it would affect the safe operation of its cars, Hersman wrote.

The videos and blog post are the latest effort by Waymo to showcase how and where it’s testing. The company announced August 20 that it has started testing how its sensors handle heavy rain in Florida. The move to Florida will focus on data collection and testing sensors; the vehicles will be manually driven for now.

Waymo also tests (or has tested) its technology in and around Mountain View, Calif., Novi, Mich., Kirkland, Wash. and San Francisco. The bulk of the company’s activities have been in suburbs of Phoenix  and around Mountain View.

Justice Department indicts 80 individuals in a massive business email scam bust

By Zack Whittaker

The Justice Department have indicted dozens of individuals accused of their involvement in a massive business email scam and money laundering scheme.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Central District of California, confirmed more than a dozen individuals had been arrested during raids on Thursday — mostly in the Los Angeles area. A total of 80 defendants are allegedly involved in the scheme.

News of the early-morning raids were first reported by ABC7 in Los Angeles.

The 145-page indictment, unsealed Thursday, said the 80 named individuals are charged with conspiracy to commit mail and bank fraud, as well as aggravated identity theft and money laundering.

Most of the individuals alleged to be involved in the scheme are based in Nigeria, said the spokesperson.

But it’s not immediately known if the Nigerian nationals will be extradited to the U.S., however a treaty exists between the two nations making extraditions possible.

U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna said the case was part of an ongoing effort to protect citizens and businesses from email scams.

“Today, we have taken a major step to disrupt criminal networks that use [business email scam] schemes, romance scams and other frauds to fleece victims,” he said. “This indictment sends a message that we will identify perpetrators — no matter where they reside — and we will cut off the flow of ill-gotten gains.”

These business email compromise scams rely partly on deception and in some cases hacking. Scammers send specially crafted spearphishing emails to their targets in order to trick them into turning over sensitive information about the company, such as sending employee W-2 tax documents so scammers can generate fraudulent refunds, or tricking an employee into making wire transfers to bank accounts controlled by the scammers. More often than not, the scammers use spoofing techniques to impersonate a senior executive over email to trick the unsuspecting victim, or hack into the email account of the person they are impersonating.

The FBI says these impersonation attacks have cost consumers and businesses more than $3 billion since 2015.

Valentine Iro, 31, and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe, 38, both Nigerian nationals and residents of California, are accused of running the operation, said prosecutors.

The alleged fraudsters are accused of carrying out several hundred “overt” acts of fraud against over a dozen victims, generating millions of dollars worth of fraud over several months. In some cases the fraudsters would hack into the email accounts of the person they were trying to impersonate to try to trick a victim into wiring money from a business into the fraudster’s bank account.

Iro and Igbokwe were “essentially brokers” of fraudulent bank accounts, prosecutors allege, by fielding requests for bank account information and laundering the money obtained from victims. The two lead defendants are accused of taking a cut of the stolen money.

Several bank accounts run by the fraudsters contained over $40 million in stolen funds.

The FBI said the agency has seem a large increase in the number of business email scams in the past year targeting small and large businesses, as well as non-profits.

NASA’s new HPE-built supercomputer will prepare for landing Artemis astronauts on the Moon

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) have teamed up to build a new supercomputer, which will serve NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and develop models and simulations of the landing process for Artemis Moon missions.

The new supercomputer is called “Aitken,” named after American astronomer Robert Grant Aitken, and it can run simulations at up to 3.69 petaFLOPs of theoretical performance power. Aitken is custom-designed by HPE and NASA to work with the Ames modular data center, which is a project it undertook starting in 2017 to massively reduce the amount of water and energy used in cooling its supercomputing hardware.

Aitken employs second-generation Intel Xeon processors, Mellanox InfiniBand high-speed networking, and has 221 TB of memory on board for storage. It’s the result of four years of collaboration between NASA and HPE, and it will model different methods of entry, descent and landing for Moon-destined Artemis spacecraft, running simulations to determine possible outcomes and help determine the best, safest approach.

This isn’t the only collaboration between HPE and NASA: The enterprise computer maker built for the agency a new kind of supercomputer able to withstand the rigors of space, and sent it up to the ISS in 2017 for preparatory testing ahead of potential use on longer missions, including Mars. The two partners then opened that supercomputer for use in third-party experiments last year.

HPE also announced earlier this year that it was buying supercomputer company Cray for $1.3 billion. Cray is another long-time partner of NASA’s supercomputing efforts, dating back to the space agency’s establishment of a dedicated computational modeling division and the establishing of its Central Computing Facility at Ames Research Center.

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